Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Faith 2011: Do We Need Another Great Flood?


On Sunday afternoon I attended a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, along with the 150th anniversary of the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada. I went to hear a good friend of mine who was singing in the choir, and the musicians did a great job.

For several years after leaving fundamentalist Christianity I still enjoyed attending the odd liturgical/traditional service. It was familiar to me and I liked the grandiose prayers, the Bible readings, the symbolic components to the service.

Well, let's just say that this time of enjoyment has pretty much passed, save for Christmas when I still enjoy going to carol services.

Don't get me wrong, the people involved in the service, including the Bishop of the church, seemed very nice and quite enthusiastic, but they were using language that was either increasingly foreign to me or puzzling. Or in some cases, offensive.

First of all, the Bishop and others often petitioned God as the Deity that I grew up with, a grandiose Lord God who is all-powerful and seemed to be a Person that one could call on and who would listen and respond to such grandiose prayers. Wordy would be another way of putting it. I am one who appreciates words, but frankly am pretty tired of them when it comes to beseeching the Divine. Here's an example of what we heard on Sunday:

"We give thanks Holy God, for arresting us with your call. For daily refreshing our hearts, reminding us anew of your promise - extending from covenant to covenant, from heart to heart, from grace to grace. Showing us your face in the wounded and lowly ones, who remind us that You are the divine origin of all. From tectonic shift to cumulus cloud, You are the divine source of all that is. Every blinking eye, each laboured breath, each beating heart, every ebbing tide, every solar revolution, every continental drift, you are the font of life and so we rejoice in your presence at this font."

I take offense to such language and such imagery of God because I do not believe that God is a White Man in the Sky who is listening to our prayers and deciding which ones to answer and which ones to let pass by (and please don't give me the cliché that "God answers all questions, but sometimes He says no.") Rather than being an anthropomorphic Person-God, I believe that God is completely Spirit and is present both in everything around us and within each and every human being.

The lyrics to the music were more offensive. Old music may sound beautiful, but listen to the lyrics and you not only get God, but the Devil, etc etc.

From Bach's Cantata No.80

"A Stronghold sure is God our Lord,
Whose strength will never fail us.
He keeps us free from all the horde
Of troubles that assail us.
Or ever evil foe,
Would fain work us woe,
With might and deep guile
He plans his projects vile;
On earth is not one like him."

So here Satan makes his appearance. Where's Jesus? A little further on:

"So take thy stand with Jesus' blood-bespattered banner, O Soul of mine, and trust thee ever in His power divine! Yea, He will lend His might to gain for thee they crown of glory. Go joyous forth to fight!"

I don't know what's more offensive: The idea of a literal pointy-eared Satan standing ready at the lake of fire to welcome sinners all, or the idea of "Jesus' blood-bespattered banner."

First of all, whoever came up with the idea of Satan and Hell was a genius, because they probably knew they could scare people into the kingdom of God for centuries. Secondly, I don't believe in the blood atonement of Jesus because firstly I don't believe humans are fallen people, and secondly because I have issues with a Father sending his son to die bloodied on a cross. To some it sounds heroic, to others Divine child-abuse. And blood sacrifice? Really? What century are we living in that we still need blood sacrifice to remove sin? Growing up, I used to sing songs that talked of a "fount filled with blood." This just seems grotesque to me now.

Where am I going with this?

At one time during the service several people got up and recited short prayers. One woman got up, and part of her prayer was that "everything that is no longer useful be washed away." Perhaps it was my favourite part of the service. Because my question is: How much is this grandiose language and antiquated theology useful anymore?

Granted, I will readily admit that there are many Lutherans who appreciated that service, and that there are many traditional Christians for whom language and theology such as this is still very meaningful. ....

But what about the others? And aren't "the others," the "non-Christians" the focus of the mission of the Christian church - or at least aren't they supposed to be. Throughout this service, I kept on thinking about how such language would sound to the homeless man reclining on the steps of the coffee shop just down the street, or to the completely un-churched single mother trying to find a way to feed her 2 young children on a measly Ontario Works allowance? My point is that in order to reach people like this with the message of Jesus, much of the grandiose language, plus antiquated and offensive theology must be done away with. Distill it down, cut to the chase. What is Christianity supposedly about?

Compassion.

Justice.

Love.

Peace.

Equality.

Feeding the hungry.

Housing the homeless.

The threat of hell, the idea that Jesus is the only way to experience God, the idea that at the core you are a bad sinner - get rid of them all so everyone can connect with the important points about Jesus. And don't feed people or clothe them with the hopes that one day they'll walk into your church and accept your theology. Do it just because it's the right thing to do.

A word about inter-faith co-operation. I was a little surprised that there weren't representatives of other faiths at the Lutheran celebrations. But look around and there are a lot of movements for people of various faiths to have dialogue with one another. Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, etc, sitting around tables talking. Yes, this can often be an encouraging sign, but what if all the world's faiths did the same thing that I am proposing that Christianity does: get rid of all the grandiose language and antiquated theology that makes little sense to anyone outside of the experienced adherent of that particular faith. This would be a painful, painful process, asking centuries-old faiths to part with familiar beliefs and wording. But if we really want unity, which so many faiths speak loudly about, something's gotta give. Any sense of superiority has to leave as well.

So I was particularly impressed with the woman who stood up at the microphone and petitioned God to "wash away all that is no longer useful."

Perhaps what the world needs is another Great Flood, one where no one is killed, but where plenty of old ideas and old theology perishes while an ark filled with the bare-bones of the various religions surfs over the waters. And after the flood we can rebuild a spirituality that truly unites and is worthy of our attention.

Mark Andrew Alward

P.S. Some people have noticed in the past, and no doubt now, that I hold some anger towards what I used to believe. My answer to this is: you're right. There is some anger. But sometimes anger serves a purpose. It angers me that any religion would claim that their way is the only true way to experience God. It angers me that some people would rather hold onto their decades-old traditions rather than adapt and open up their faith to present-day men and women. It angers me that people take a handful of texts from their scriptures and use them to shut-out members of our society such as gays, lesbians, transgendered people, and women. It angers me that people continue to kill each other over their differences in religion.

I am committed to seeing a change in my world.